Influence of attentional load on spatial attention in acquired and developmental disorders of attention

Neuropsychologia. 2013 May;51(6):1085-93. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.01.019. Epub 2013 Feb 4.


Converging evidence suggests that right-hemisphere dominant spatial attention systems can be modulated by non-spatial processes such as attentional capacity. The severity of neglect in right-hemisphere stroke patients for example, is correlated with impairments in non-lateralized attention. Evidence also suggests the coexistence of lateralized inattention and reduced capacity in developmental disorders of attention, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is marked by cognitive impairments suggestive of right hemisphere dysfunction. These lines of evidence argue against a coincident damage hypothesis and suggest instead a direct modulation of spatial attention by non-spatial processes. Here we sought experimental evidence for this relationship in both acquired and developmental disorders of attention. Six adult stroke patients with focal right brain injury and 19 children with ADHD were studied in comparison to control groups of both healthy older adults and typically developing children. The participants were required to detect transient, unilateral visual targets while simultaneously monitoring a stream of alphanumeric characters at fixation. Load at fixation was manipulated by asking participants either to ignore the central stream and focus on the peripheral detection task (no report condition), or to monitor the central stream for a probe item that was defined by either a unique feature (low load condition) or a conjunction of features (high load condition). As expected, in all participants greater load at fixation slowed responses to peripheral targets. Crucially, in right brain injured patients but not older healthy adults left target detection was slowed significantly more than central and right target detection. A qualitatively similar pattern was seen in children with ADHD, but not in typically developing children. The imposition of load at fixation slowed responses to left compared with right targets, and this response time asymmetry was correlated with the severity of ADHD symptoms. These results suggest that a direct manipulation of non-spatial attention can reveal lateralised attention deficits in both acquired and developmental forms of inattention. Our findings support the view that spatial attention networks are tightly integrated with non-lateralized aspects of attention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology*
  • Child
  • Developmental Disabilities / complications*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Perceptual Disorders / chemically induced*
  • Perceptual Disorders / etiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Space Perception / physiology*